A short story about an adventure.
Sweat trails form my hairline, tickling my cheek as it rolls down to my chin, finishing its trip with a descent to the asphalt below. I swear I can hear it sizzle on impact. My new hard-topped, polka dotted suitcase jerks and pulls over every crack and pucker in the time-worn road as I tow it behind me. I squint through my sunglasses, gazing at the pastel color houses, with flat metal roofs and foundations that have sunken into the soft earth adjacent to the street.
Laughs and sniggers pull my eyes over to the other side of the road. I find myself peeking through as chain link fence at the school protected within.
The students, all between the ages of six and twelve, call out “¡Mira, mira! ¡Gringa, gringa!” and I can’t help but smile and wave.
I face forward and keep plodding down the street. A man lazily passes by on a rusted one speed bike, slowing to exchange pleasantries. I slur and stutter over my reply, realizing for the umpteenth time that I need to work on my Spanish. High School students walking home from the morning session howl out laughter as they joke with their friends. Upon seeing me, a white female with a rolling suitcase and a knapsack, they jokingly argue over what to do.
Finally one, a girl, speaks out in a slight accent,” Hello, how are you?” a phrase every child here learns from teachers in their first years of school.
I reply with a smile that does not stretch beyond my teeth and a small nod as they carry on, jeering at each other all the while. As I continue on my way, I survey the flea-bitten mutts with balding patches on their legs, haunches, and groin, sitting smartly in the cool shade of a tree. One of few dotting the flat landscape of the small town formed in the shadows of the great Pan-American Highway.
I feel it before I see it, a dried and flattened frog crunches under my sneakers and the fat wheels on my suitcase…oops. I’m so hot I don’t even care and I’m sure my core body temperature has risen several degrees since parting ways with the air-conditioned bus. That was probably the last cool air, natural or artificial, that I will feel until I board another bus back to the city.
As eager as I am to finish this journey through the hot and humid air, I see a two story cement building with fading and chipping paint where at one point, someone had artistically painted the letters,” Mercado”. I can’t fight the urge to go into the small store and buy myself a refreshment. I wind my way through the three isles. There is an entire two shelves dedicated to personal hygiene and cleaning-like supplies, another to different types of dry sacks of rice and beans. The back wall has a display case of hardware for bikes, showers, machines and the like. I settle on a coke, being sure to grab a can or else they won’t let me leave until I’ve completed my beverage and put the glass bottle into the recycling. I open the small freezer and pull out a short tube of strawberry frozen yogurt. I turn to face the register and place my items on the counter.
A woman of Chinese descent mumbles,”Siete y ocho centados.” And points to her register screen when she sees my puzzled look.
I dig through my bag and pull out a twenty, the lowest denomination that was dispensed at the ATM where I stopped before leaving the States. She checks to see if it’s real and puts it in the space below her cash tray. She counts and recounts the change and finally hands me paper bills to accompany an assortment of coins…two pennies, a dime and two nickels. While they are seemingly normal coins, I flip one over and see “Republic of Panama” imprinted into the back.
I swing my bag around my shoulder to rest in front of my body. I place my soda and change deep with in and prepare myself to continue on down the road. The sweet and salty yogurt is gone before I’ve made it very far and the cool sugary treat has helped to revive my dragging, trudging, gait.
I startle as a passing carload of men returning home for lunch hiss and the honk the horn of their rusting, flat black pick up outfitted with a system of metal pipes fit for hauling wood and scaffolding pieces tied over the small bed full of workers. Its not uncommon here that men find fair girls attractive, however their methods of communicating the interest are entirely unflattering and frankly quite frightening when you’re walking alone.
I recover from this upset and keep my pace down the newly paved and painted street, the only one with lanes to direct traffic. I come to a stop in front of the soft yellow entrance of an internet café. There are countless others placed throughout the town, and for most people, it is the only way most people here have access to the internet. Some have billboards standing out front to attract patrons, and others, such as this one have nothing but an open door. I enter to find three modest desks with HP monitors glowing, resting on top with keyboards waiting in drawers directly beneath. I survey the sign, although I already know that a quarter will buy me a half an hour only tens minutes of which I will actually use to send an email to impatient and worrisome mother back in California, two hours behind.
Upon beginning to type my short yet reassuring email, I notice not only the differences of a Spanish keyboard but also the empty worn keys where A,S, and W used to be. My fingers punch out a rhythm, completing the message in a few minutes. Once it is sent and cleared of my conscience, I sign out and prepare to leave the claustrophobic room. My suitcase jostles, threatening to flip as it rolls over the door jamb and I look down reaching to stabilize it. I look up to see a woman, only several inches shorter than I am, my eyes follow down her arm to the sounds of babbling to see a boy about the age of three, wearing shorts, a tank top with some action figure printed across the chest, and baby sized yellow and blue crocs.
“Cristina?” I ask. And the woman’s face clouds with confusion.
I point to myself and offer my name. After several moments, she smiles and wraps her arm around me. Upon seeing his mother’s comfort with me, the young boy relinquishes her hand and wraps his tiny arms around the base of my leg. I look at Cristina and we laugh at his actions. I reach down and pick him up, my suitcase forgotten in the shade of the internet café.
“Da le un besito Justin” Cristina directs her son to kiss my cheek.
His little, face, sticky with god-knows-what nearly collides with my mine as he slobbers a messy kiss on my cheek. Again, my gaze catches Cristina’s and we giggle as Justin turns a slight shade rosy pink upon noticing his status as the center of attention.
“El tiene pena” I cry and began chuckling once again.
I stay talk with Cristina for only several minutes more. She asks what I’m doing back in Nata, and I tell her that I’m visiting the family. I ask her about her mom and if she is still working with AFS and if any more student groups have come through to help in the small primary school. With the promise to see each other later, we part ways, her into the internet café and me down the street.
I continue walking, anticipating a shaded park bench situated in front of the church. My mind wanders to the last time I walked the streets of this place. I remember falling asleep to the cries of roosters, barking of dogs and rumble of a passing vehicle speeding down the street outside the bug-screen window with the shutters jammed open, and waking before the soft beeping of my small, travel alarm clock to just the same symphony of strangled crowing, boisterous howling and urgent engines. I remember lazy afternoons when the best thing in the world was a rocking chair in the shade among friends. I remember the first night I heard the rain pouring relentlessly from the dark sky, unlike any weather I’ve ever laid awaked listening to, and the cackling of Luci and Yina when I told them that I loved it. I remember the cute boys climbing through branches on pursuit of mangos to bring down to us girls waiting below. I remember the laughs and the smiles, the tears and the solitude in which I occasionally suffered. I remember this park and these streets that, to the untrained eye, look just about the same, full of rows of brightly painted houses without addresses, only people inside.
A chorus of hissing pulls me out of my reverie and despite knowing that upon glancing to the origin of the sound I will find a gaggle of boys either looking away, or looking too close, My head swings over my shoulder. I quickly train my eyes to the ground, hiding my inflamed cheeks.
I look forward, eager now to sit and drink my soda, hoping that the cold had not ebbed from the liquid. I pass another market, being sure to look away from the brilliantly brown irises of a different group of boys loitering at the store front, embarrassment still pooled in my cheeks. My gaze falls upon a house with a small tile sitting area, not more than a few feet wide, surrounded by a short iron fence, the gate resting wide open, welcoming people inside. This is the house of Señora Hilma DeLion. She owns a farm that spreads over several of the hills on the outskirts of this town. She is the florist for that services the entire population. I remember sitting at Hilma’s table with one of my friends and travel companions, Cristi, who was staying with her, when Hilma pulled a can out of the small cupboard of dry goods. She brought it back to us and revealed that a student from Canada had brought it down a few years earlier. She continued on to ask what it was. We both looked at the label and laughed when we saw that it was Maple Syrup. I wonder if it is still collecting dust on that bottom shelf.
I finally cross the street and walk in to the small park. I by pass the metal benches with black peeling paint that sit glistening in the suns rays and keep moving to the center, a gazebo where the dogs come to sleep at night, and find a perfect seat in the shade on the other side of the park. I roll my suitcase to a stop at the side of the bench and drop into its metal embrace, taking my backpack off to rest at my side. I pull out the coke and feel satisfied at the hiss pent up carbonation that escapes as I pop open the top.
I will myself to sip it slowly, avoiding the urge to consume the entire can in several large gulps. After several minutes I feel much more comfortable thanks to the cool, carbonated, sugary liquid and the consistent cover of shade. Now that my mind has been saved from the fiery depths of delirium, and impossibly erratic thoughts, I take in the magnificence that is the church of Nata; the oldest working church in all of the Americas.
I gaze upon its pure beauty. The façade stands impressively before me, painted the holiest of whites, sloping up at a slow grade, a single cross at the apex. The bell tower rests beside it. Before boarding the bus and departing from what had been our home, my friends and I climbed to the top of the damp, steep stairs, only to find that it was a nest for pigeons, live and deceased. There are three doors that stand as sentries, guarding the endless rows of pews that face the intricate, hand carved alter pieces that cover the front wall of the church. The one time I had been inside the holy sanctuary of history and purity, it had been under the renovation. The brightly painted carvings were lovingly wrapped in plastic, the pews stacked to one end with scaffolding structures standing toward the back were people would have stood had there been a service, the benches full. It had been hollow, empty. Light filtered, softly into the vast, empty space, filling the room with dust motes rather than the faith, passion, and history I could sense ghosting among the rafters.
Suddenly, in my serene patch of shade, I realize that it’s time to go, time to finish this journey. I gather my self, then grab the handle of my rolling suitcase and, yet again, continue on my way, this time, to my final destination. The sun has moved, creating long shadows, marking the coming of night. Dusk has brought a slight chill to the air. I return to the main road, passing Señora Hilma’s, and the internet café. A chorus of men’s whistles and calls spawn from the rehabilitation center, and again as I pass the bar. Men sitting on the roofs of their cars holler as I pass.
One says in what can only be an attempt to woo me,”Hey baby!” when I don’t reply he asks, “What’s the matter baby? You mad baby? What’s the matter?”
By this time I have passed him by, without a word. He attempts to coerce me once more,” I make it better baby!”
This time I can’t help but shutter. I don’t know where he learned that and have a feeling I don’t want to. How had I let it get so late? The sunset here seemed to slip past the horizon in a matter of minutes, leaving the town blanketed in darkness. The flat, grey light that is characteristic of evening has now colored the sky, and I’m anxious to reach the comfort of shelter. I could try to find a cab ride, but I’m so close and here, in Panama they charge per person. I didn’t feel so unsettled as to pay sixty-four cents to travel several blocks.
I turn off the main road and reconsider. There are no stores, bars, or many streetlights to illuminate my path only the light that is thrown from the small windows of houses. The sounds that float over from the highway, the cries of crickets and the racket my small rolling bag creates are pressing in around me, beginning to suffocate me with fear. I quell the anxiety with memories of the last visit.
I picture myself wearing the traditional podgera, a white blouse and floor-length skirt set made of light layers of pure and gauzy cotton. I think back to the presentation we gave before we left the last time. A short and graying man had instructed us on dancing over the time we were there. He taught us the steps that every child learns as a tribute to their culture, the steps Panamanians have been dancing for years. Our partners were eleven and twelve year old boys that, when standing, only came to my neck, their greedy eyes in line with my chest. The day we were to present what we learned to our families and friends we met along the way I prepared at my house. My host mom enlisted her sister, who I was to call Tia NiNi, to help. Tia NiNi arrived with Maria Selest, a cousin with five years behind her and a passion for the limelight.
Once I was dressed in my podgera, which was a white so brilliant it matched the paint of the church and smeared an ample amount if cover up, blush, and blood red lipstick on my pale face, my family members began looping necklaces over my head, hanging earrings from my lobes, and wrapping my wrists in colorful beaded braclets. We then, instead of walking the five minutes down the street to the school, got into the car of Tia NiNi. Upon arriving at the school, I was ushered into a classroom where all of my friends from the states were preparing. A woman directed me to a chair. She had a large Tupperware box in one hand and because of the clear exterior I could see brightly colored objects resting within.
Once I was seated she popped open the container and began pushing things into my hair, grazing my scalp with every bobby pin. I guess I figured that she would put one or two pieces in, everyone else seemed to have an ornament like these in their hair, however she continued. Pin after pin was shoved into the fine, cropped strands that Luci had wrapped into small buns before leaving the house until eventually the woman ran out of hair to use and began pinning the brightly beaded flowers, birds, and insects to eachother.
When she finished someone handed me a mirror. My entire scalp was covered. This woman who’s gray polo shirt read “National Culture Institute” had created a crown of sorts that wrapped up from the base of skull around my head, leaving the very top uncovered. It was a gorgeous, shimmering whirl of shapes and colors.
With every step I could feel the weight of every piece tugging on strands of my hair and I worried that the entire sculpture would fall loose. It held. Throughout the Cumbia and the Denesa, the bobby pins kept every ornament secure. It had been so incredible. Looking back I realize that every step was off the beat and I wasn’t nearly as Godess like as I thought I was. I did however have the time of my life, every smile warranted, every picture inadequate in describing just how magical the last day with my family had been.
“Senorita” A voice rasped, beckoning me.
I froze and turned. The voice I know all too well came from the small, gated front porch of a sunshine-yellow painted house with ceramic stars, moons and butterflies hanging beside the door.
“Elvia?” I ask.
Elvia is the AFS coordinator for Nata. Everyone knows Elvia. She is a hard working woman that is like a mother hen for us students, just as stifling as the ones we left back at home.
She rushes out her gate and I meet her at the end of the walk way. “Mi amor” she cries with her arms open wide. I can’t believe she remembers who I am, it’s been a least a year. She throws her fast and mumbled Spanish at me. I am only able to understand half of it, but I can feel the passion and admiration in her words. She reaches for my suitcase exclaiming that she will give me a ride home. As she hurries past the door with my bag and me in tow, she calls into the open door,”Aurellio”.
A young boy appears in the threshold. It’s only because of his hair that he reaches my shoulder, the dark spikes lend him an extra inch. His inquisitive eyes roam over my body from my tows to my face. A large smile reveals a slightly crooked row of brilliant teeth. She tells him to get the keys, that we’re going to “La casa de Luci”. I smile at him and wave before he runs back into the house to retrieve the car keys.
I feel excitement and nervousness bubble up from the base of my stomach as we get closer and closer to the house. Aurellio is on his knees in the front seat, peering back at me, the warning bell sounds, declaring that he is not wearing his seat belt. I crane my neck forward trying to see a few feet more, eager.
A smile spreads across my face, nearly cracking it in half when my straining eyes light upon the short linoleum walkway that extends to meet the road. We finally stop and I can barely contain myself as I yank my suitcase from the inside the car and walk toward the front door, slowly picking up speed. I rush through the front gate when I see Luci and Yina in the doorway as it opens, spilling light into the covered area. I drop my suitcase in the middle of the porch and rush into Luci’s waiting arms. I’m finally home.